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Long Nights and Inalienable Rights: A Conversation with Mr Twin Sister

on August 21, 2015, 11:00am

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Kevin McMahon sits down with Mr Twin Sister and discusses what it means to be a working-class band in today’s music industry.

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The music business. Found at the corner of “clusterfuck” and “money-grubbing non-artists trying to find a place in music anyway.” It’s been the subject of more thinkpieces and pull quotes than Kanye West, Billy Corgan, and the entire field of 2016 Republican Primary candidates combined. This is not a thinkpiece. This is about a band and how they live their lives amid all this bullshit.

Mr Twin Sister are a Long Island-originated group consisting of singer Andrea Estella, keyboardist Dev Gupta, drummer Brian Ujueta, guitarist/singer Eric Cardona, and bassist Gabe D’Amico. They’re longtime friends scattered about NYC who practice several times a week in a shared space in the heart of Brooklyn. While their popularity means they get to do cool things like a recent mini-tour with Julian Casablancas, Mr Twin Sister take refreshingly little for granted.

Last year, after nearly three silent ones, a new, lusty creature emerged and with it a self-titled sophomore album. Mr Twin Sister’s cocoon split. Left behind was the mild-mannered indie pop of old, and in its place was a sound trending somewhere between Elizabeth Fraser-fronted Massive Attack and Frankie Knuckles’ record collection. It’s disco’s moody cousin, promiscuous and in love with things that shimmer, but equally in tune with dark voices that only whisper at night.

Mr Twin Sister’s more electronic-leaning production allows the band to thematically explore the romance of losing control while keeping both hands firmly on the wheel. It’s a sound that represents the many changes the project has undergone in the past few years: They added a “Mr” to their name, added a near death to their list of experiences, and subtracted a notable label contract.

mrtwinsisterLP

All three topics are engaging, but I’m most interested in talking with them about the latter. The reason being, as fans, we often only hear mega-stars and business people speaking in platitudes about situations they’re actually very isolated from. Mr Twin Sister are not isolated. They are the band all those individuals try to speak for: big enough to sign with Domino in the first place, independent enough to leave the label, and small enough that they must work regular jobs. My inner shrink wants to know how it all makes them feel. Do they care? How has their experience shaped their views? And what the hell is Imogen Heap talking about?

I meet the band for the first time before a show at a small club called The Bishop in Bloomington, Indiana. They’re hungry and I’m sweaty. It’s still over 90 degrees even though the sun is setting. As I walk inside and the AC hits my skin, it feels like I imagine the first hit of a crack pipe to be — jarring, euphoric, relieving. Their hunger is not nearly as desperate.

The six of us scuttle into a small booth next to a bunch of now-empty equipment cases. I start with questions about their music. Ujueta digresses for a moment to address some pesky gnats behind him. Throughout, Gupta and Ujueta do the majority of the talking. Cardona’s soft-spoken nature is comforting, but he remains quiet most of the interview. Estella looks partly exhausted, partly despondent, like she would much rather be somewhere else. I’m unable to tell where one ends and the other begins. D’Amico sits patiently, filling the remaining space with eloquent speech that sums up the mood nicely.

We start talking about trust and how it manifests itself in Mr Twin Sister. Gupta gives an example: “Even if I didn’t see [my bandmates] for a while, when we come together, things fall back into place pretty quickly. We’re not necessarily always doing stuff, but there’s this thing that has developed over time, sort of like riding a bike.”

“What we want is more obvious, too,” Ujueta follows. “We want the same thing. Before, there were points where that was not the case. Now it’s more like, ‘Oh, that’s sick, yeah, I like that.’ We’re finishing each other’s sentences.”

Now that they’ve settled back into full-time lives outside music, the balancing act of creative versus functional reappears. It’s a tough act to juggle, especially once you’ve tasted the fruit of full-time artistry. Estella is the most torn. She aches for creative freedom, but the long nights of constant touring it requires bleed her dry. “I love being home more than anything,” she says. “If I could teleport on stage and then still be able to sleep in my bed with my dog and eat food from my fridge, I would.”

Ujueta would gladly tour to support himself if it was in the cards. D’Amico and Gupta are closer to Estella’s opinion on the subject. Cardona doesn’t take a position. D’Amico summarizes, “Having our band as something that is sort of unquestionably in existence, rather than wondering if we’re going to break up, keeps us going. Using what we do as a thread that runs through all of our lives makes it easier to deal with everything else.” Everyone nods.

As we talk more, a vast rift about the industry’s effects on them begins to form. It’s as though we were standing on a fault line that finally buckled; the sudden release of energy sends the band flying to opposite ends of the room, and I’m caught in the middle. Musically, Mr Twin Sister operates as a paragon of democracy: open, welcoming, with all opinions evenly swirling into a silky, five-headed reptile with one mouth. It’s why their music is so balanced. But when I ask about profiting from music, the divide is stark, causing Gupta and Ujueta to go head to head with D’Amico and Estella echoing in support or dissent.

“I don’t think anyone has an inalienable right to making money off of music,” says Gupta. “The idea, ‘Oh, I’m an artist, I should be able to make a living off of my art.’ I don’t necessarily know if that’s true. It’s definitely not guaranteed. Our government certainly doesn’t do anything to support the arts in the way a lot of other governments do. So I don’t know where this ‘right’ would come from. It’s certainly not treated that way.”

Nina Corcoran, Mr Twin Sister 3

Photo by Nina Corcoran

D’Amico agrees. He believes leaving Domino was a way of the band recognizing there wasn’t going to be a commercial aspect at the forefront of the project. He doesn’t see it as a negative. That’s the way Mr Twin Sister has done it in the past, and universally, they agree it’s where their “best music” came from.

Still a back-and-forth begins:

Estella: I mean, I don’t know, I feel like [Gabe’s] brother owns a home from the experience he had with his band blowing up, and there actually being money in music. I wish I had that. I would love to buy a house at 20 years old.

D’Amico: I just agree with what Dev said. I don’t think it’s an inalienable right to make money off of art.

Gupta: And also the question of who determines what level of success deserves what level of money? Linking those two together is a weird thing to me. It makes you have to answer all sorts of strange questions.

Ujueta: It’s hard to calculate, but it’s still a shame.

Gupta: Sure, I wish that everyone had tons of money to do whatever they wanted.

Ujueta: Yeah, but it’s still a shame that millions of people can play your music at their home for free.

Gupta: Is it a shame?

Ujueta: Well, think about something — like fine art — that can’t be duplicated. This problem is specific to the medium of music and how it can be traded.

Gupta: I would say that’s beautiful. Why isn’t that an amazing thing? That you can duplicate something without it losing any of its value and give joy to another person — you just created something out of nothing. You literally broke the laws of physics. It cost the world nothing for some person to have a moment of joy.

There’s a curtness in the dialogue between Gupta and Ujueta that makes me uncomfortable. Not knowing them well makes it hard to gauge how frustrated they really are, but our booth’s collective blood pressure has clearly risen. There’s a long pause. This tenseness remains for much of our conversation, hovering overhead like the early evening gnats that refuse to leave Ujueta alone. At moments, it feels like we’re at a crowded house party talking about politics, and the people behind us really wish we would stop. There is no one behind us, but I’m anxious all the same.

We talk about the side effects of music’s lack of financial value.

As D’Amico sees it, there will always be people clinically unhappy unless they are doing what they love most. Others can supplement what they love and maintain some stability. Sadly, the unfortunate souls who cannot compromise get hopelessly lost in this shuffle. Ujueta talks about it from another angle. Some people, himself included, are better at making music than they are at anything else. Today, that leads to a lot of 30-year-olds working in coffee shops and bars, stuck in orbit like a planet nearing cataclysm, each trip around the sun feeling faster and more desperate. How can we help them? Can they be helped? These questions burn so big and ambiguously that in the end they feel rhetorical. Yet, whether we are outsiders or insiders on this issue, there’s the concern about great artists getting left behind.

Then there’s the more pragmatic group. Gupta’s argument, that profiting from art is not an unassailable right, is a strong one. Being paid for art predisposes a capitalist ideology that the same people who believe artists should profit often protest. In Gupta’s words, “It reinforces everything about the way we live. You just have to make more and more money, and to do that you have to get really good at something. And if you’re not getting paid for being good, then something wrong is happening. I don’t agree with that at all. Why can’t I just be good at something?”

I ask about the future of music for Mr Twin Sister and bands like them. D’Amico’s response both comforts and disconcerts me. “Things aren’t going to be as centralized — especially in terms of smaller artists and how people get their music,” he says. “If you’re a band, that could mean the places in which you’re popular, or for listeners, it’s the circles of influence. There are more subcultures. [Music] is splintering and getting super-specific to what people want. It’s the same way with everything now. We can customize the way in which we experience media in general, or life. I don’t know if rock star style gratification fits very well into that equation. It will probably just be an even further separation of the Taylor Swifts and the moderately popular bands.”

Nina Corcoran, Mr Twin Sister 2

Photo by Nina Corcoran

It’s self-evident, but still saddens me. Many amazing performances I’ve seen were elevated to the height of religious experience by those artists having money: money for machines, quartets, and choirs; money for pyrotechnics, lights, and visualizers that bent my mind like a paper clip; money to pack amphitheaters and festival grounds alike.

Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” begins to play from the overhead speakers. I’m unsure if it’s ruining the recording of the interview, so I decide to wrap things up. I ask the band to personify Mr Twin Sister. Gupta answers, “A coral reef.” Ujueta says, “A stew on low heat.” Their methodologies are similar. Gupta explains, “We’re always building up things, then leaving them behind. Like, ‘No, this isn’t good.’ So we do something different. At the end, we leave behind this huge thing, and it’s like, ‘I don’t know what this is … we made it, though.’” After their accordance and a few laughs, Gupta and Ujueta make amends.

I watch Mr Twin Sister play three sets, each as breathtaking as the last, in the next four days. Estella sports pastel orange face paint at the top of her cheekbones. In natural light, it makes her look sullen and withdrawn, but on stage, under the silver-tinted blue beams Mr Twin Sister fancies, she’s angelic. Her cascading figure glides across each performance, blending time like it’s not the fourth dimension of our universe, but something malleable and potentially handheld. The half-time drumbeat of “Blush” is perhaps the best example. It’s space to get lost in, and I do — so much so that when I finally get back, I have no idea how long it’s been. I am not alone. The crowd was so enraptured during their Pitchfork Music Festival after-show that the two people talking behind me were viciously shushed by other audience members. All that remained was a sea of closed eyes swaying back and forth, believing it would never end.

“We’re just people living our lives, and we make music sometimes,” D’Amico’s voice rings in my head as Mr Twin Sister walks off stage. The band is personable, taking time to interact with fans before and after each performance. They are in especially good spirits at the end of the final show I witness. Headliner Ariel Pink takes the stage, and Gupta, D’Amico, and Estella look supremely relaxed as they take it in. I watch Cardona chat for a minute with an excited young man and sign an LP cover. Afterward, I tell Cardona that a member of the crowd compared him to a young Drake. He laughs and decides to take it as a compliment. It all feels very human.

And that’s just it. Here are these amazing musicians who live a majority of their lives outside music’s professional realm, just existing as they always do, seemingly unaware they are at the forefront of the industry’s burning metal space fleet that is supposedly hurtling toward Armageddon. Sometimes they play music, sometimes they argue, and sometimes they don’t do either. But they have a choice, and they will always have that choice.

As I leave, I see Ujueta outside. We talk. He’s extremely approachable and the band member I find easiest to picture myself drinking with. Eventually, we say our goodbyes, and he gives me a hug. For some reason, it makes me remember something else D’Amico said. “Making music will remain intact forever,” he said. “Let the music business people fight over scraps. Who gives a shit? There’s always going to be people making music. In fact, most of the music we listen to is from people becoming popular and creating common threads, new genres of music, against all odds. Indie electronic music is that. They weren’t concerned in the slightest with whether the music industry was crumbling.”